Belarus opposition fail to win single seat in key polls

Opposition parties in Belarus failed to win a single seat in parliamentary elections seen as a test of the former Soviet state's democracy, the electoral commission said today.

Opposition parties in Belarus failed to win a single seat in parliamentary elections seen as a test of the former Soviet state's democracy, the electoral commission said today.

"Not a single opposition candidate was elected, at least not among those represented by the parties," Central Elections Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina told reporters.

The full results indicated that all 110 seats would go to loyalists of autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko, who Washington dubs "Europe's last dictator" but made a pre-poll bid to reconcile with the West.

A sweep by pro-Lukashenko parties would likely be read as a snub in Washington and Brussels, which have offered better ties with the former Soviet republic if the elections show significant improvements on earlier polls.

Election monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were to give their appraisal of the poll later today.

Hundreds of opposition activists gathered late yesterday in the capital Minsk to condemn the polls as a "farce" and urged international observers not to recognise the outcome.

Lukashenko, who has ruled this economically backward former Soviet republic wedged between Russia and the European Union for 14 years, yesterday hit out at opposition groups for taking "outside" funding.

"A real, constructive opposition is always needed ... but not an opposition fed and financed 100 per cent from outside," he told journalists.

The West has offered to ease sanctions, give economic aid and lift a travel ban on Belarussian leaders if yesterday's poll shows signs of progress in a country that is also a key transit route for Russian gas exports.

Young protesters gathered in central Minsk after polls closed, holding banners declaring "No to Farce" and "Dictatorship Should Go to the Dustbin of History" and "No to Russian Military Bases".

They also waved flags of the European Union and orange ones mirroring those used in the pro-Western Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine in 2004.

Only a few uniformed police could be seen surrounding the opposition rally, in stark contrast to previous post-election protests in Belarus

Earlier, a coalition of anti-Lukashenko groups criticised the election as undemocratic.

"It is clear these elections cannot be recognised as honest and fair under any criteria. We do not recognise the results," Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the opposition United Citizen Party, told AFP.

The voter turnout was 75.3 per cent, the Central Elections Commission said today.

The opposition has criticised the early voting system as giving authorities an easy way to commit fraud, since it was not subject to complete independent monitoring.

Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders complained that Lukashenko's critics were ignored in state-controlled media during campaigning - a view shared by the demonstrators in Minsk's October Square.

Thousands had camped out in the same location in March 2006 to protest the results of a presidential vote widely seen as rigged.

Of the 263 candidates fighting for the 110 seats in the lower house of parliament, only 70 are from the United Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties, while the rest are Lukashenko loyalists.

In the country's last parliamentary elections in 2004, no opposition candidates won a place in the lower house.

Today's results were due to be formally confirmed on Friday.



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